Hour of the Dragon – Robert E. Howard

Rush in and die, dogs–I was a man before I was king!

Hour of the Dragon / Conan the Conqueror is the only novel-length Conan story, and it’s none too long at that, clocking in at 150 ebook pages and 79,000 words. So I’ll start my review with a disclaimer: this is a short, pulp fiction novel, written nearly a hundred years ago. Presumably I should lower my standards and expectations, because it was never intended to be high art or great literature. The thing is, Howard was genuinely a good enough writer to create both, if he’d wanted to or been able. The things I’m going to criticize are things I’d ding any author for, no matter what the genre or intended audience; they’re things I think would have made the story, exciting, well-crafted, superbly-worded as it is, exponentially better. Basically: Howard should have slowed down the pace a hair, expanded the characters a just bit, and stopped using the main character falling unconscious as a scene-changing device, because that always ticks me off.

So anyhow. The plot is….Conan has a series of adventures and then saves the day. You see, a cabal of highly-born and ambitious wastrels has enacted a plan to take control of Nemedia and neighborning Aquilonia: resurrect the three-milennia-dead sorcerer, priest, king, and monster Xaltotun of long-gone Acheron. By his magic, supplemented by the Heart of Ahriman, they intend to create a plague that will the King of Nemedia and replace him with one of their own. Then they will attack Aquilonia and replace Conan with a relative of the previous King.

For anyone not supported by a forgotten sorcerer from long-fallen Acheron, step 3 is where this is most likely to fail. And it almost does. Only because of Xaltotun’s sorcery is Conan struck by an uncanny wight in his tent, unable to lead his troops into battle–or hold them back from leading a charge that his less experienced body double falls for; and only because of sorcery does that end in disaster, as a landlide collapses a mountain on his army. Conan is taken alive by Xaltotun himself and cast into the Nemedian dungeons.

The cabal, you see, is not a stable alliance; Xaltotun knows it, and knows that he’ll need some threat to check Tarascus in Nemedia and hang over Valerius in Aquilonia. At this point, the narrative switches over from the fast-moving but slightly more measured pace of a novel, to the almost-frenetic short story velocity which is more familiar to Howard’s stories but….he should have slowed it down just a hair. If for no other reason than that he’s actually got plenty of plot and characters to describe. In short order: Conan is rescued by the fair maiden Zenobia, despite the efforts of Tarascus to remove Xaltotun’s leverage via a cannibal gray ape. Conan proceeds back to Aquilonia, pausing only to attempt to witness Tarascus consign the Heart of Ahriman to a Zamoran thief with orders to cast it into the sea, attempt an assassination, kiss the girl, and then, rather randomly, bump into a Nemedian warrior who had the good sense but bad luck to wonder why there was a random horse tied in a thicket outside the palace. Now, this is good writing in the sense that no exit should go easily when you’re in your enemy’s capital city, but it’s bad in that it pauses for a paragraph to introduce the Nemedian Adventurers, a class of fighting-men unique to that country who, etc etc etc. Well, the Nemedian Adventurers are unique to that paragraph, too, because the only one we meet gets run through by Conan, making this a Chekovian blunder. A simple soldier on patrol would have done just as well for the amount of effort Conan puts into escaping him.

The bulk of the plot is expanded on promptly, as Conan encounters Zelata, an Aquilonian witch, who tells him he must find the heart of his country before he can lead them in the fight again; and Servius Galannus, one of his barons, who clarifies the political situation to him. Conan’s general, Prospero, lacks the manpower to carry war to the enemy without more support; Conan’s appointed heir, Count Trocero, has been rejected by the trucculent barons, who would submit to a king but distrust one of their own gaining supremacy over them. Valerius has been proclaimed king almost unimpeded–which the Aquilonian citizens are only just begining to realize was a really stupid mistake. Loyalty to Conan or simple self-respect is being brutally punished–a burned villa and a countess about to be executed form the chief examples–and the common people, as we have seen in Zelata–are already being persecuted by foreign soldiers.

This part of the novel, where Conan demonstrates his grasp of statesmanship and strategy, discusses options with a counselor, listens to the advice given him–and then decides what to do–is masterful. We get a clear picture of what is going on, the conventional view of what should be done, and then we see both how our hero thinks (differently) and how he differs from ordinary people (he intends to get things done.) It does this briskly, without frills, digressions, or narrative excesses. And, since almost all the rest of the actual, non-serialized adventures plot of the book rests on this one chapter, it accomplishes some serious heavy lifting in its few pages, too.

But Conan decides to rescue the Countess Albiona before he heads off to join his remaining loyal generals, which, besides allowing a little bit of scantily-clad fair-maidenly-rescuing, gives the last impetus for the main action of the novel. Rescue complete, Conan and Albiona meet the priests of Asura, a religion which is usually persecuted but which Conan has allowed freedom to practice in Aquilonia. The priests of Asura have a widespread network and some uncanny abilities. They assure Conan that the Heart of Ahriman is the secret to defeating Xaltotun–and, better yet, that it has not been cast into the sea and is traceable.

Conan goes after it, utilizing his old contacts in the underworld, from his time as a petty thief, a masterless fighting-man, and a corsair captain. His pursuit of the jewel and its sequential passage from hand to hand by theft, murder, flight, and more murder, covers about one-third of the book, and….it’s the least satisfying part of the story, simply because we’ve seen Conan do these serial-adventure things so many times before, with the same exact narrative beats and same exact pacing. I guess that’s what my main problem is: this is a big chunk of the novel, and it’s the same old same old. Incidentally, Conan is being followed by a team of creepy guys in hoods, but they’re almost more of a stage dressing than a threat so never mind. Nevertheless, he finally does secure the Heart, after following it across a continent and an ocean and returns in hasty triumph to his corsair ship and to Aquilonia.

From there, things proceed, very satisfactorily, from the utterly characteristic message with which Conan opens hostilities:

To Xaltotun, grand fakir of Nemedia: Dog of Acheron, I am returning to my kingdom, and I mean to hang your hide on a bramble.
Conan

–to the final stroke, wherein Conan sets the ransom for Tarascus of Nemedia: one girl from his palace–Zenobia, who will become Queen of Aquilonia.

This book has bits that are absolutely brilliant:

Beside the altar-stone lay no fresh-slain corpse, but a shriveled mummy, a brown, dry, unrecognizable carcass sprawling among moldering swathings.
Somberly old Zelata looked down.
‘He was not a living man,’ she said. ‘The Heart lent him a false aspect of life, that deceived even himself. I never saw him as other than a mummy.’

After Conan has had an encounter with a beautiful woman in the cellars of a forgotten temple (who tries to drink his blood and whom he flees into the monster-haunted catacombs rather than face down):

…through his fear ran the sickening revulson of his discovery. The legend of Akivasha was so old, and among the evil tales told of her ran a thread of beauty and idealism, of everlasting youth. To so many dreamers and poets and lovers she was not alone the evil princess of Stygian legend, but the symbol of eternal youth and beauty, shining for ever in some far realm of the gods. And this was the hideous reality. This foul perversion was the truth of that everlasting life. Through his physical revulsion ran the sense of a shattered dream of man’s idolatry, its glittering gold proved slime and cosmic filth. A wave of futility swept over him, a dim fear of the falseness of all men’s dreams and idolatries.

There’s even Servius Galannus’ reaction to Conan’s appearance at his plantation:

At the low call the master of the plantation wheeled with a startled exclamation. His hand flew to the short hunting-sword at his hip, and he recoiled from the tall gray steel figure standing in the dusk before him.
‘Who are you?’ he demanded. ‘What is your – Mitra!’
His breath hissed inward and his ruddy face paled. ‘Avaunt!’ he ejaculated. ‘Why have you come back from the gray lands of death to terrify me? I was always your true liegeman in your lifetime-‘

When was the last time you read or heard someone say “Avaunt”? And as an intro, this is a good way of showing that, while Servius Galannus is a small-time farmer, he does not fear man; and he does not hesitate to protest to Conan’s supposed-shade that he was loyal.

But these are moments only: it doesn’t sustain them…and I wish it had.

So my main criticism is that the book needed to slow down just a tad and expand on its characters a hair. One of Howard’s main strengths is a weakness in this book. His ability to portray quick, vital snapshots of bold and passionate characters engaged to their utmost in at the most dramatic moments of their lives is great for creating memorable short stories. But in a longer work, more than a single snapshot is needed. Is it a problem? Only if you pause for breath between battles, assassinations, rescues, hidden temples, wars, dungeon escapes, battles, lost temples, catacombs, slave revolts, shadow-cloaked priests, vampire queens, forgotten temples, giant serpents, more battles, and plain old street fights. But I submit that it could have made the difference between a crackin’ good Conan yarn and a genuinely great novel.

The breakneck pace keeps your attention! And it is headlong as hell. But it’s without time for reflection, or, well, characterization. Everyone is portrayed in the quick strokes and primary colors; further developments are informed of by the omniscient narrator. This…could have been better. While quick and vivid sketches are the name of the game in short stories, this is a novel and it has to be a) longer, b) more interesting. There’s time and there’s a need to slow down, if just a hair, and expand on things, like people’s feelings.

Especially Conan’s. Conan is different as a king than he was as an adventurer–but not by much. He’s always had an eye for strategy, and he’s always had a soft spot for helpless civilians; he’s always been frank and fair. He was a man before he was king; and that he remains. We get to see what he says and does, and with Conan what he does is what he thinks….mostly. But, given that we’re dealing with an older and wiser Conan, it would be nice to see him realizing this and, even if it makes him uncomfortable, to think about it some.

There are also a menagerie of secondary characters who don’t get to be nearly as cool as they could be. Although Trocero is Conan’s appointed successor and heir, he gets only a single scene and no real characterization: his scene and comments are really only a repeat of Servius Galannus’ from ealier. And then there are the cool people who pop up in one scene and are never, uh, seen again. Who is Countess Albiona, other than a pretty girl whom Conan must rescue because he hasn’t met his quota for the novel? Does Servius Galannus rally to his king at the end, bringing only his loyalty and a handful of men-at-arms? What is the deal with the Nemedian Adventurers–could they form an elite squadron which dies to the man, struck down trying to defend the undeserving Tarascus? Zelata and the Asuran whisper network are cool enough to genuinely deserve more than the single line they get describing how much a problem they have become to Valerius.

You see, Howard comitted a tactical error: he made his characters too cool and then didn’t use them enough to showcase how or why.

Writing this review, I’ve also realized that most of my problem with the “chasing the McGuffin” section of the novel is primarily because it hews too closely to the short-story formula–probably because Howard was just tweaking his existing stories to fit the new frame narrative. Would it have been better written in a different fashion, after all? Honestly, maybe not. I don’t know. I only can plead a vague dissatisfaction with this part of the book and not really any cogent solutions.

Yeah, so basically, if you were to ask me how I rated this book:

I have not heard lutes beckon me, nor the brazen bugles call,
But once in the dim of a haunted lea I heard the silence fall.
I have not heard the regal drum, nor seen the flags unfurled,
But I have watched the dragons come, fire-eyed, across the world.

What if….

A beggar in rags, with withered hand and single eye, catches you by the wrist and calls your name.

A lord in fine clothing, on a high horse, asks you for directions.

Your coworkers have been replaced by dinosaurs.

Your workplace is beseiged by monsters.

You must sing for your supper.